May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and after months of anti-Asian attacks and bigotry, this year's celebration of the culture and contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders seems particularly meaningful.
Best-selling author Lisa See met up with "LA Times Today" host Lisa McRee in downtown Los Angeles to explore her family's Chinese heritage and the history of LA's Chinatown.
One of See's books, "On Gold Mountain," describes 100 years of her family's history, including when her great grandfather Fong See and his second wife moved to the United States from China.
"My great grandfather did a lot of the jobs that immigrants do today; he washed dishes in restaurants, he swept up in factories and worked in the fields. In 1897, he moved to Los Angeles, and he was selling curios at the time. He slowly went from curios to antiques, and here we are today," See said.
The original Chinatown in LA used to be where Union Station is today. But the property was purchased, and people who lived in the original Chinatown were displaced.
"Some people moved to what was called the 9th Street City Market Chinatown. Then two other projects opened within weeks of each other. One of them was China City, and the other was New Chinatown, where we are now," See said.
She says there were so many laws that excluded Chinese people. However, her great grandfather was able to find a loophole that helped him thrive in part because of his Caucasian wife.
"You could not own property here in California; even if you were a quarter Chinese, you could not marry someone who was white. So my great grandparents went to a lawyer who drew up a contract between two people as if they were forming a partnership," See said.
Despite their success, the See family knew the risk of being Chinese in America.
"In 1871, there was a terrible massacre where 19 Chinese men and boys were shot, stabbed, and hung. One out of every 500 residents of Los Angeles participated in that riot, and there were no convictions," See said.
During World War II and in the 1950s and 1960s, Chinatown thrived and became a vibrant spot for soldiers and other visitors.
"This was such a lively place, certainly through World War II; all the soldiers who were coming through Union Station could come to get a cup of coffee, a donut and could dance with a girl. In the 50s and 60s, families came to Chinatown for dinner, and there were so many things to do like throwing money in the wishing well, parades and festivals," See said.
Eventually, a change in land laws allowed Chinese people to live in different parts of Los Angeles.
"People no longer had to live in Chinatown; they could live wherever they wanted. The rents were low, so more artists started to come in. So now, when you walk around Chinatown, you see so many art galleries and studios. It is a younger crowd, but it is this kind of resurgence," See added.
She says she is also aware of the anti-Asian discrimination that has been going on in the United States but is hopeful for the future.
"It is so shocking to me, but at the same time, it is not. So many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Once you start adding those stressors to people, they go into this place of deep fear, and that fear begins to trigger fear of the other. Most Americans had someone in their family who was brave enough, scared enough, and crazy enough to leave their home country and come here to start new. And, we bring with us our culture, artifacts, food, religion and tradition. And that is what makes the fabric of America," See said.
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